One of the most misunderstood parts of American history is American Indian treaties. K-12 lessons about them range from a cursory explanation to absence. Common themes about them are that they no longer exist or that they are broken. There isn’t a consistent practice across the country or a common curriculum that would help teachers teach accurate content about treaties and sovereignty.
Thankfully, a visionary partnership of organizations and committed individuals decided to change the treaty narrative. In August 2010, a Minnesota partnership created an exhibit called Why Treaties Matter, which educates us about the treaties between the US government and the Ojibwe and Dakota nations. The Minnesota Indian Affairs Council (MIAC) partnered with the Minnesota Humanities Center and the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) with Minnesota Legacy funds to create the Why Treaties Matter exhibit. It has traveled to over 40 different organizations, schools and colleges and universities.
As a result of the exhibit, my perceptions have moved from a cynical “well the treaties are broken and not much can be done” perspective to a more realistic view of “the treaties are living documents and native people are exercising their rights under treaty law.” The exhibit taught me that treaties are legal documents and they will continue to exist as such. According to the Constitution of the United States, Article VI, Clause 2 (also known as the Supremacy Clause) treaties are the laws of the land. Dakota and Ojibwe people have inherent legal rights to exercise key pieces of the treaties like the right to an education, hunt, fish and gather on treaty land.
So what about the students? How has this partnership transformed their learning about treaties? Last year the Minnesota collaboration added a new partner, Eden Prairie Schools. The district had an opportunity to not only host the exhibit but pilot curriculum related to the exhibit. It was a chance for teachers to have more content knowledge in the form of educator guides they could share with their students. This was content not readily available to them in conventional history textbooks or other curriculum. The pilot was so successful that an opportunity for more curriculum testing is underway.
This month, Annamarie Hill, Executive Director of the MIAC, and Eden Prairie High School Social Studies teacher Mark Bray are bringing the Why Treaties Matter exhibit and curriculum back to the high school students.
How do we start to appreciate and understand that treaties still matter and impact all of us? Annamarie and Mark share their insights about this process.
Annamarie Hill Interview
Annamarie, why do treaties still matter and why should we care?
Treaties are the law of the land. They show from the beginning how we transferred the land from indigenous control to the United States. They tell the story of how we got here and became the United States. How Minnesota became Minnesota. The treaties are obligations and they are living, breathing documents.
Why did you create this exhibit and want to work with schools?
We had the opportunity of funding and we had many needs. Of all the needs and issues, education rose to the top for me from what I learned from our tribal leaders, educators, legislators and community. We wanted to create something for the community. If we could be educated around indigenous issues, we could solve many problems and change beliefs about the treaties. We wanted to address the basic laws of our land and show when our legal relationship began. If we are not educated, what can we do?
What are the major myths about Dakota and Ojibwe treaties that your average American has about them?
The myth is that both nations are identical and we are the same tribe and people. Everyone thinks we are the same. The other common myth is that we always fought and were constantly warring with each other. Actually there were a lot of good relations between both nations.
What are the key pieces of knowledge we need to know about treaties in the 2st century?
Treaties are still living and breathing documents that are still in effect today. They are the laws that govern our land. Treaties still matter today and into the future.
Mark Bray Interview
Mark, why do treaties still matter today and why should we care?
The Constitution is the supreme law of the land. It is what is in our hearts and minds and I personally think it is the right thing to understand that we made these promises as a nation. Even though we have dishonored the promises, we can fulfill them today. Honoring treaties is one way we can redeem ourselves. I should also add that understanding treaties makes us to be more effective citizens and they work for all students and honors our first people.
How do your students benefit from learning about the treaties?
Overall, 97% of the students who studied the treaties found them very worthwhile. Students have said viewing the exhibit is a moving and powerful experience and transforms them. In fact, one white student said that he never knew or realized what treaties were, what they mean, or what his connection is to them locally. He feels he has a more sense of place in his community as a result of learning about them in his classroom. He really appreciates the cultural points he learned about the Native Americans of Minnesota.
What insights have they shared with you?
A common thread was that students were able to make a connection to the first people’s history in Minnesota by equating what they were learning in the classroom to the treaty panels. The panel experience was a new way of learning and covering information that has not been available before. This material is often overlooked or forgotten in the textbooks. Many said they had never learned about them before or how much they and native people affect the state government. They believe they are learning important information now.
What were the misconceptions?
The treaty exhibit brought out the myths and stereotypes that some of the students believed about Native Americans and treaties. Through our work, we are correcting those misconceptions. This is a human rights issue. If we don’t honor these treaties, any group will become marginalized. Another myth is that we are islands and that we can’t cross culturally to each to other. Like native students learning to sing opera or a white student learning to bead.
The impact of this work is threefold. The first is that when our students have difficult and controversial conversations about treaties with their families, friends and co-workers they will know why things are done the way there are when native people exercise their rights. Second, the pilot idea has spread to another school district in Walker, Minnesota. They will start a pilot this month. Lastly, the exhibit and pilot has provided an opportunity for interracial conversations between students, staff and community that break down the beliefs we have held for too long about treaties and indigenous nations. These new relationships will never be forgotten.